Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Trouble with Truth: Sameer Rahim Wonders What We Can Know Besides Our Indefinite Opinions

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Trouble with Truth: Sameer Rahim Wonders What We Can Know Besides Our Indefinite Opinions

Article excerpt

When Boswell suggested to Johnson that it was difficult to refute the "ingenious sophistry" of Bishop Berkeley--who asserted that the world existed only in our perceptions--Johnson famously exclaimed, as he kicked a stone: "I refute it thus." However, recent scholarship has shown that Boswell often reconstructed scenes and dialogue for his Life of Johnson years afterwards. Can we be sure the incident happened?

Johnson made more powerful arguments for truth. When a clergyman denounced a man who had committed adultery as a "whoremonger", Johnson objected. "You don't call a man an ironmonger for buying and selling a penknife; so you don't call a man a whoremonger for getting one wench with child." Johnson's pursuit of accuracy was part of his discriminating moral sense.

A relativist might claim there are reasons for doubting Johnson. Was the man an adulterer? Is adultery always wrong? But using the framework of truth and falsehood--despite our doubts--might produce the more interesting discussion.

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Thinking we are right, however, means we could also be wrong. "I know I have a brain ... Everything speaks in its favour, nothing against it," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein. "Nevertheless it is imaginable that my skull should turn out empty when it was operated on." How do we come to doubt the world?

Our parents taught us that all actions have verifiable consequences: running with scissors is dangerous, and eating sweets rots your teeth. …

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